Interview: Ruth Owen

Written by Samera Owusu Tutu on 24 February 2015 in Interview
Interview

Ruth Owen, director general of personal tax, tells Samera Owusu Tutu about her efforts to raise morale – and perhaps even a smile – at HMRC

Ruth Owen’s laugh is infectious – and truly at odds with the stark realities of tax collection. As director general of personal tax in HMRC, she has many agendas to champion, from changes to high earners’ contributions to the evolution of PAYE and the challenges of an ever-shrinking workforce. None are popular, and a sombre mood among staff might seem inevitable. But Owen has injected some real personality into the department, and has listened to the community she is actively building. 

Owen, who is also head of the Operational Delivery Profession, became DG of personal tax in 2012, and from her earliest days in the role it has been her mission to make HMRC – a byword for low morale in Whitehall – a great place to work. She acknowledges that this kind of cultural change doesn’t happen overnight but, wielding authenticity as her weapon of choice, she’s determined to win the battle by demonstrating engaging leadership.

“In coming to HMRC I wanted to set out my stall of who I am as a leader,” she says. “I’ve tried to take a very authentic stance in allowing people to get to know me personally.”

A key element of Owen’s approach to leadership is her interaction with her frontline workforce. She’s determined to create more of a genuine dialogue with staff, and even writes a weekly blog in which she infuses the HMRC message with her own brand of humour.

“I have found a range of channels by which people can speak to me, share ideas with me, challenge me, and hear what I’ve got to say. Doing online forums, having dial-ins, all those things, just make us feel like a closer community.”

With a departmental branch the size of HMRC’s personal tax, hearing every voice is ambitious at best, but Owen isn’t discouraged.

“The truth is, I’ve got about 15,000 people who work for me and I’ll never meet all of them. I have to make sure there are lots of different channels to get my messages across but, equally importantly, I’ve got channels by which people can tell me what’s going on in the business.”

"We are optimistic that, over time, we will raise the engagement of our people.”

Owen doesn’t just listen, she understands the need for context. No doubt her time at Jobcentre Plus, where she was director of business strategy and planning from 2006 to 2009, and then chief operating officer for two years, has added to the value she places on her frontline. Now in her role as DG of personal tax, she makes the effort to spend time visiting those at the coalface.

“I strongly believe the leadership has to be well connected to the frontline. When you lead big delivery organisations like ours, it’s really important that you stay relevant to the frontline. I make a rule: one day a week has to be spent outside London in operational environments, meeting colleagues.”

When discussing tax policy with the Treasury, HMRC is increasingly focused on the ‘customer journey’. Owen describes how these journeys are sketched out for government ministers and treasury officials: every step of the process that end-users must go through – including letters, reminders and various courses of action – is represented. 

“If you step them [ministers and Treasury officials] through it, it’s much easier to understand than looking at cold leglisation, and that’s quite good in making sure policymakers understand the impact of what they’re doing to their taxpayers, as well as helping us really make sure the processes are as straightforward as we can make them – which isn’t always easy.”

Empathy from the top is essential in a department that is routinely at the bottom of the class for employee engagement. Unfortunately, in the 2014 Civil Service People Survey, the HMRC score for Leadership and Managing Change was 15 percentage points below the average for the civil service, at 28%. All results were down, against both the whole civil service and last year’s HMRC figures, except for the Learning and Development strand, which increased by one point against HMRC’s 2013 result.

“We are obviously disappointed by the results,” concedes Owen. “However, we have significantly increased the number of HMRC colleagues participating in the survey, which was our first objective. We really do want to hear from colleagues about how they feel about working in HMRC – and if that is not all positive then we need to know about it so we can take action. 

“HMRC is going through some major changes and our plans for how we engage the entire workforce in those changes – which we call ‘Building our Future’  – had only just started when the survey was held. We recognise that we can’t turn around a culture overnight and it will take years for us to reach scores we would be happy with.

“That’s not to say we are complacent, and we are working with our people to address the key issues that are raised within the survey. We are optimistic that, over time, we will raise the engagement of our people.”

One indicator that morale isn’t as low as it could be is the number of staff who are pursuing promotion up the ranks of HMRC, instead of moving across to other departments in order to get a payrise.

“We’ve promoted over 10,000 people in the last couple of years from [grade] AA upwards,” says Owen. “The ability to see people move from AA right through to permanent secretary is essential, because growing our own talent is what we should be doing, and giving everybody the opportunity to become leaders of the organisation, using their experience of what this organisation does, their experience of what our customers want… There’s nothing like that at board level.”

“The best thing to do when we’re talking to our colleagues in the workforce in HMRC is to start with the customers, set out what the customer needs, and then think, how do we build towards that?”

That said, Owen knows she must balance staff morale with the needs of end users – who ultimately come first. “Most people in HMRC recognise they have to do the right thing for our customers,” she says. “People are pretty passionate about getting the tax in and doing a good job for our customers.”

Personal tax has been at the vanguard of digital delivery within government; indeed, online self-assessment, which launched in 2000 and now accounts for around 85% of returns, pre-dates the Government Digital Service’s exemplars by almost 15 years. Now, with real time information (RTI) bedding in – a change that Owen describes as the biggest to payroll and tax for 70 years – she believes digital delivery is essential in order for a shrinking workforce to meet an ever-increasing workload.

“Digital is definitely the right thing for our customers,” says Owen. “We know we’ve got to become a small organisation, so we are going to have a lower cost base and we’re going to have fewer people working for us. That’s the reality. Digital will actually help us maintain good service levels, even though we’re going to be costing less.

“Most people recognise that our customers want to do things swiftly, particularly when we talk about RTI. I still get complaints from our own people saying: ‘Why can’t we move faster with digital agenda?’ because our customers demand more of us online. 

“The best thing to do when we’re talking to our colleagues in the workforce in HMRC is to start with the customers, set out what the customer needs, and then think, how do we build towards that?”

Still, Owen manages to deliver challenging messages – such as the inevitable need for the department to shrink – in as upbeat a manner as she can. She makes it her business to understand her team in the face of continuing change, and is determined to make all members of the workforce feel valued, comfortable and heard.

“We should be proud of who we are as a department,” she says. “Bringing in tax might not be popular, but it’s an essential part of having good public services.” 

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Samera Owusu Tutu
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